There is no question that many will be wondering why Roman Polanski, of all directors, has decided to do another telling of the classic Charles Dickens story, Oliver Twist. Polanski is, after all, one of our most creative directors and one who is rightfully associated with very high quality productions. I would tell those people to keep wondering, but at the same time acknowledge that this may be the best telling of Oliver Twist ever put on film.
By now I think many are familiar with the story of our orphan, Oliver (Clark). The story picks up with him arriving at the workhouse on his ninth birthday. He is stuck doing superfluous labor and is soon ordered to leave after asking for more food during dinner. He winds up living with an undertaker and, after spending a sleepless night in the casket room, decides to hoof it to London.
There he meets Dodger (Eden), a resourceful pickpocket who works for Fagin (Kingsley). Soon Oliver is running in their circles, as criminal as they may be, and making more enemies, including Bill Sykes (Foreman), an abusive wretch with an evil dog. At one point Oliver is taken in by Mr. Brownlow (Hardwicke), a caring old man who truly believes that Oliver is not a thief. Oliver also earns sympathy from Nancy (Rowe), a girl who is much too close to the temperamental Sykes.
Director Roman Polanski takes a very straightforward approach to the material, but that is not to be criticized. The musical elements of past versions have been removed in favor of a straight-up narrative. Polanski’s directorial prowess shines most in the look he has given the film, which ranges from moodily dark to blindingly light. Polanski possesses such undeniable talent for establishing setting and mood, and this version of Twist is plenty dark. The art direction by Jindrich Kocí and the cinematography by Pawel Edelman are both Oscar-worthy in their creativity and authenticity.
Ben Kingsley, as volatile as his role choices may be, turns in a wonderful performance as Fagin, the decrepit old man whom you would imagine smells really bad. Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood seem especially concerned with humanizing Fagin. Kingsley’s performance gives it the necessary depth, and towards the end of the film we actually begin to feel sorry for him. He lets his little pickpockets drink and smoke all around his hole of a living quarter, but no one should be that shocked by it as the same thing happens today, only under parental supervision it seems.
Newcomer Barney Clark also turns in a sterling performance as the title character. He portrays Oliver with a wide range of emotions and determination. There is a tremendous scene in which Oliver must confront Fagin towards the end of the film, and Clark’s facial ticks and emotional attachments shine through brilliantly. Also look for excellent supporting efforts from Jamie Foreman as Sykes, Leanne Rowe as Nancy, and Edward Hardwicke as Mr. Brownlow.
Polanski’s vision of Oliver Twist is a faithful adaptation of the Dickens classic and deserves to be seen, even if you are all too familiar with this story. This is a dark, moody affair that may catch some parents off guard with its bad attitudes and heavy-drinking kids, so think twice before bringing the infants and toddlers expecting a musical good time. Polanski and company have proven that, once again, great stories never go out of style.
Studio: Sony Pictures
Length: 130 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for disturbing images.
Theatrical Release: September 23, 2005 (Limited) / September 30, 2005 (Wide)
Directed by: Roman Polanski
Written by: Ronald Harwood. Based upon the novel by Charles Dickens.
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Barney Clark, Leanne Rowe, Mark Strong, Jamie Foreman, Harry Eden